DAYTONA BEACH — In the 1982 movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” a ruthless drill sergeant barks at female Navy aviation officer candidate Casey Seeger that she’ll never make it through the training or become an authoritative leader because she’s just a woman trying to be a man.
Something very similar happened to Jennifer Whittet in the earliest days of her career in a rural northern Wisconsin county dotted with small towns. She was the second female deputy ever hired by the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office, and a male field training officer essentially told her she was wasting her time.
“He said I would not make it,” Whittet recalled him predicting during their late 1990s conversation.
Like the drill sergeant in the movie, Whittet’s training officer could not have been more wrong. Over the 23 years that followed him trying to steer her out of the nearly all-male sheriff’s office, she went on to climb the ranks in the Daytona Beach Police Department, and she’s now a deputy chief.
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When the 44-year-old was promoted in November, she became the first-ever female deputy police chief in Daytona Beach. She’s also only the second woman to reach that rank in the Seventh Judicial Circuit that includes Volusia, Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties. The New Smyrna Beach Police Department has also had a female deputy chief.
‘I had to prove everything’
Whittet got into law enforcement because she thought it would be an interesting and challenging career, not because she was trying to shatter any glass ceilings. But her gender still became an issue.
“When I got hired in Vilas County I was not accepted,” Whittet said. “I think that was one reason I got where I did. I had to prove everything.”
She also endured sexism out on the streets when she was working. She said she was spit on and had doors slammed in her face. She even had problems on a Wisconsin Native American reservation, where she said some in the tribe did not respect women.
Whittet and the Wisconsin training officer eventually became friends, but it didn’t start out that way.
“I’d go home crying to my mom,” said Whittet, who at the time was just a few years out of high school. “I told her ‘I’ll do this.’ I think that’s always been in my mind. I’ll prove to you I can do it.”
She proved herself to Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young, the one who chose her for the second-highest rank. Young was chosen to be the department’s next chief at the beginning of November, and he quickly promoted Whittet from captain to deputy chief.
She oversees support services, and the other newly promoted deputy chief, Scott Goss, oversees operations.
Young, who is Daytona Beach’s first Black police chief, said placing Whittet in one of the two open deputy slots had nothing to do with wanting to establish more firsts for the department.
“It’s great that Deputy Chief Whittet is the first female deputy chief in our history, but that had no bearing on the decision to promote her,” Young said. “She’s been stellar in every role she’s had in her 20 years at the Daytona Beach Police Department. I know she’ll do the same in this one.”
Moving to the big city
After working for the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office for a few years, a fateful twist planted the idea in Whittet’s mind to consider moving south. She and a friend traveled down to Tampa Bay for a spring break vacation, and she was hooked on Florida.
After the trip, she went back to work in northern Wisconsin, where the mercury often plunges below zero during the winter, and during one particularly chilly shift she made a major life decision.
“I got in a chase with a snowmobile, and my hands were so cold I could hardly write,” she said. “I was done.”
Whittet and her boyfriend at the time talked about moving to Florida, and since he liked motorcycles and they had a friend who was a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, they chose Daytona Beach.
In September 2001 Whittet resigned from her job in Wisconsin and the young couple hit the road. She didn’t have a job waiting for her, and when she arrived in Daytona Beach she discovered the city’s police department wasn’t looking for any full-time officers.
Then Sept. 11 came, and they were hiring.
On Oct. 1, 2001, Whittet began her career at the Daytona Beach Police Department. She started as a patrol officer assigned to the area around North Street and Ridgewood Avenue — an area long plagued with drugs, prostitution and vagrants — and she found herself in the middle of a new world of police work.
She had good training in Wisconsin and her skills were solid. But everything in Daytona Beach whirled at a faster pace.
“This felt like the big city,” she said. “It was accelerated learning.”
Whittet lived the first 24 years of her life in a quiet Wisconsin town called Eagle River, a place just 1,500 people called home. The northern hamlets around it were also small, some so small they were unincorporated.
Being in Daytona Beach with tens of thousands of people sometimes felt overwhelming, she said.
She also had to get used to a higher crime rate. In the area she policed near Lake Superior, a typical call would be for a burglary of one of the vacation homes most people used only during the summer. There were also a fair number of accidents between vehicles and deer.
She recalls only one homicide during her three years with the sheriff’s office there, and she had to respond to it.
Whittet was also used to working alone. In Wisconsin, the closest backup officer was usually 30 minutes away. There were 40 deputies in the whole department, and they were spread out over different shifts on different days.
“My ability to talk to people kept situations calm,” she said. “I was used to going to a fight and I was it.”
In Daytona Beach, she suddenly had a team of five officers to back her up when situations heated up. She adjusted to the rhythm of working in a platoon and found the new challenges exciting.
She was also happy to be in a department that treated female employees well, and had women in uniform.
Whittet remembers another female officer in her first platoon, and others throughout the department. Now there are female officers working every shift, she said.
There are currently about 295 Daytona Beach police officers, 77 of whom are female and 87 of whom are minorities.
She said even residents were more respectful of female police officers when she started working in Daytona Beach in 2001.
“Here it was so different culturally,” she said.
Whittet stayed in the patrol division for about two and a half years, and then she was promoted to detective in 2004.
It was in that position that she delved into narcotics investigations, something that intrigued her. She conducted upper-level drug investigations, surveillance and wiretaps.
At one point she even thought about trying to become an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In 2011 she was promoted to sergeant, in 2014 she became a lieutenant, and in 2015 she became a captain.
She knew Young from her earliest days in the department. He had been hired six months prior to her joining the force, and the two became zone partners.
They hit it off and had mutual respect for one another as officers.
“If I had a question or a problem I would always go to him,” Whittet said.
Young saw right away that Whittet is a problem solver, one of the reasons he chose her to be deputy chief.
A promotion earned one day at a time
Other co-workers also saw exceptional ability and character in Whittet. Capt. Trisha Loomis said Whittet has always encouraged and supported her over the 11 years they’ve worked together, something that’s been very important in a culture where female officers can be extremely competitive with one another.
Loomis, who was just promoted to captain, said she was “thrilled” to see Whittet elevated to deputy chief.
In 2003, Whittet appeared on “America’s Most Wanted” for the capture of an armed suspect wanted in connection with bank robberies and other felony charges.
A year earlier, in 2002, Whittet was awarded the Medal of Valor. She was recognized for her response to a horrific car accident in December 2001, less than three months after she began working for the Daytona Beach Police Department.
Two teenagers in a stolen car were speeding through the streets of Midtown when the vehicle flipped and crashed into a building. Whittet and another officer were the first to arrive on scene and they pulled the kids out of the burning car.
They performed CPR, but both teenagers were severely injured and died.
She’s been on other harrowing calls. She’ll never forget the night she responded to a fatal motorcycle crash on Interstate 95 near LPGA Boulevard. The victim’s son had been riding on the back of the motorcycle, and Whittet arrived to find the 12-year-old boy leaning over his father and screaming at him to wake up.
On those tough days and the less tough days, Whittet just did her job and tried to keep growing as a police officer. It was never about trying to get awards and promotions.
‘You got this’
When Young and Whittet met he was about 22 and she was around 24. At the time they didn’t expect to one day be leading the department together.
Now Young is the fifth police chief Whittet has worked under, and she’s his second in command.
Whittet said she likes to get things done, but she prefers to do it quietly and behind the scenes. She didn’t seek out a high-profile position.
“I never thought I’d wind up here,” she said.
When Whittet was growing up, she was an avid runner and basketball player, and she envisioned herself in a sports-related career. She was thinking about sports medicine when she started college at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh on a track scholarship.
Then she started getting interested in the law, but she knew she didn’t want to go to law school. She chose law enforcement, and in 1997 she graduated from the Wisconsin Police Academy at Fox Valley Technical College. In 1998 she earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in psychology from Northern Michigan University.
In 2018, Whittet earned a Master’s Degree in criminal justice from Columbia College.
She was both surprised and honored when Young chose her to be one of his deputies. The new chief could have selected any of his lieutenants, another one of his four captains or someone from another law enforcement agency.
He chose the woman who runs marathons, is raising a 12-year-old son with her husband while working long hours, and has proven herself at the Daytona Beach Police Department for nearly 20 years.
“I’m proud of where I’m at and how I got here,” Whittet said. “I like to think I got here doing the work I did.”
If she ever needs a reminder that she can handle her latest new challenge, there’s an inspirational wooden knickknack on her office shelves with a simple message: “You Got This.”